I’m going to exit the rock ‘n roll highway for a second. Not to worry, it’s more like visiting a rest stop than getting off the interstate to go see Seattle’s Gum Wall. So go get yourself a Slim Jim and a soda, and come on back and sit for a spell.
I went to the Barnes Foundation recently to see a new exhibit entitled “Picasso: The Great War, Experimentation and Change.” It’s running through May 9, 2016, so if you are thinking about going, recognize that time is running out. I’ll get back to the Picasso exhibit, but first a bit of background.
For those of you not familiar with the Barnes, it is an art collection that was established almost 100 years ago by Dr. Albert Barnes, a Philadelphia physician who became fabulously rich through the development of Argyrol, an antiseptic used to prevent blindness and eye infections in newborns. Barnes used his money to start buying art, but not just for display purposes. He ultimately established an educational foundation to teach art to students, and like a lot of rich guys, he did it his own way. So the Barnes has a very eclectic approach to displaying art: you will see paintings, metalwork, decorative art, furniture and the like, and from very mixed provenances around the globe, all displayed in “ensembles” (i.e., a wall in the museum). There is no explanation that exists for why Barnes displayed certain pieces together, but it’s different and interesting, and allows everyone to establish their own theory about what Barnes was up to.
And what a collection! Barnes sent his long-time friend, William Glackens (the so-called American Renoir, but I think only by those who don’t care for Renoir) to Paris to buy some art. Glackens came back with about 35 paintings by now legendary artists such as Van Gogh, Picasso, Renoir and other contemporary Parisian artists. Barnes greatly added to this base of works, and his collection grew into one of the most important assemblages of post-impressionist and modern art in the U.S., if not the world. It has the largest collection of Renoirs anywhere on the globe, as well as vast assortments of work by Cezanne, Matisse and Glackens. It also has impressive works by Modigliani, Van Gogh, Rousseau and Picasso.
Personally, I love the Modigliani’s, Matisse’s and Renoir’s the best. It’s not that every one of the paintings by these artists is my favorite, but there are such wonderful paintings by each that it is hard not to feel moved by them. The Modigliani’s carry his signature elongated humans, and their faces are almost always mask-like: the eyes have no irises or pupils, and the facial expressions are blank. I guess this is intended to have you focus on the remainder of the human figure, but I can never stop looking back at the faces, too. They’re really haunting and fascinating to me. And the Matisse’s! I love them – some have lots of movement (such as dancers) or harken back to Greek themes, such as naked people in a mythical natural setting. But there are others that explore a darker side to human emotion. And there is an amazing triptych of three sisters that is both traditional and thoroughly modern. His work is the basis for much of modern art, and it is GREAT. The Renoir’s are not all masterpieces – there are simply too many of them in this collection, and some of the impressionistic landscapes have been knocked off so much they look like something you could buy at a department store or Ocean Gallery on the Boardwalk. But there are also amazing scenes of people, many of them mothers with children, that are just beautiful. And the dreamlike quality of the paint texture adds to the moods of many of them.
But I digress. The Barnes has also been the subject of a bitter controversy in Philadelphia. It was established and run for most of its existence in the Main Line suburb of Merion. But there was a tremendous amount of litigation involving Dr. Barnes’s will and the financial viability of the Foundation, and lo and behold, the entire collection is now sitting on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Center City Philadelphia. I was never convinced that the neighborhood in Merion was very fond of the traffic that this collection brought, but once the big powers in Philadelphia started to hover around the collection, the Merion populace rose up to fight it. There is an excellent movie about the entire episode called The Art of the Steal, and I highly recommend that you check it out on Netflix. It tells one side of the story, and it certainly doesn’t heap praise on the powerful interests in Philadelphia that ultimately won.
So back to the Picasso exhibit. I generally like Picasso. He left behind an incredibly large legacy of paintings, prints, sketches, and sculptures, and he explored many styles. In Ottawa a few years back, we went to a Picasso show, and it was one of the best and most comprehensive exhibits of a single artist that I have ever seen. But the Barnes exhibit is much more focused on a period in Picasso’s life, and ends up truly focused on the birth of cubism by Picasso and Georges Braque.
If you like cubism, you will like this show. I am ambivalent about the style. I think it is interesting to see the interpretive and creative renderings of familiar objects in a very different style that is both jarring and alarming. But it also seems impersonal, sometimes too abstract, and lacking in high artistic accomplishment. Nonetheless, the exhibit, although rather small, does project a space in time that is critical and fundamental to modern and contemporary art. The Barnes also has a short film that helps to set the scene, and I recommend that you see the film first. I would not recommend that you go to the Barnes just to see the Picasso exhibit. But if you are in Philadelphia with a few hours to spare, you cannot go wrong seeing the Barnes. It’s just that good.
A couple of quick comments about the practicalities of your visit. First, the Barnes isn’t cheap - $25 per person for general admission. Second, there is very limited parking in the area, so assume you will be doing some walking. Next, take the time to see the Picasso exhibit, but DO NOT miss the permanent collection – it is truly one of America’s great smaller museums, occupying the space in Philadelphia that the Frick holds in New York, the Isabella Stewart Gardner has in Boston, and the Phillips commands in Washington. In other words, it’s not the biggest or most comprehensive museum in the city, but it’s outstanding and world-class, and if you are an art lover, a collection that should not be missed. Finally, we first went to the top floor in our last visit, which is less crowded and holds the majority of the Matisse works, and it worked well for avoiding some of the crowds on the first floor. But see it all – it’s not so extensive that you can’t take visit each room in a few hours of time.
I took a picture of the new building, which you can see below. Now, I think it might be time to listen to some tunes. Enjoy your day, and thanks for reading.
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My name is Bill, and I live in the greater Philadelphia area. I love music, and I have a lot of opinions. This site is primarily focused on music, but sometimes I get off track. I hope you enjoy.